Thursday, February 18, 2010

Public Roles, Private Persons

 The entrance of women into the public sphere, whether in the realm of politics or in the realm of religious leadership, has led to questions concerning everything from demeanor to dress.  As Debra Erickson notes in today's edition of Sightings, Courtney Wilder recently wrote a piece for Sightings about a clergy fashion blog.  Though not totally devoted to women's issues, the name of the Blog does suggest that orientation.  Erickson looks back to that posting as part of a discussion of an upcoming conference at the University of Chicago Divinity School that features Jean Bethke Elshtain, dealing with the question of public and private roles -- especially for women.  It's an interesting piece that raises questions of what it means to be a woman in the public sphere.


Sightings 2/18/10
Public Roles, Private Persons
 -- Debra Erickson

A few weeks ago, Sightings ran a piece by Courtney Wilder on the clergy fashion advice blog Beauty Tips for Ministers.  In highlighting the dilemmas faced by female clergy – the clashing of expectations that occurs in a profession in which the line between personal and professional is blurry and difficult to maintain, particularly for women – it exemplifies the themes that will be taken up by a conference being hosted by the Divinity School next week, “Public and Private: Feminism, Marriage, and Family in Political Thought and Contemporary Life.”  The conference is inspired by the work of University of Chicago Divinity School Professor Jean Bethke Elshtain, whose first book, Public Man, Private Woman is widely considered a modern classic in political theory.

In much of her early writing, Elshtain fought against the feminist dictum that “the personal is political.”  This battle cry collapsed the classical distinction in political theory between the public sphere of political action (historically reserved to men), and the private sphere of home and family life, where women invisibly labored, unknown and unremembered.  But in trying to break down the barriers that prevented women from acting in the public realm, radical feminists applied the logic of politics, constituted as a quest for dominance, to private life:  Relationships that had been defined by love or familial fidelity were instead viewed exclusively as the seat and site of oppression, injustice, and misogyny; liberating women from those bonds became the explicit goal of a cadre of late-twentieth-century feminists.  In other words, women had to become men:  Authentic living was possibly only when unencumbered by the obligations of marriage or childrearing.

Reverend Weinstein’s blog is, in some way, heir to Elshtain’s groundbreaking work.  Rather than demanding that women leave behind the things that mark them as women – feminine clothes, up-to-date hairstyles, makeup – in order to exercise public authority, the blog makes a space for women to act in public as women.  The blog also highlights the ways in which Christianity has played, and continues to play, a role in the ongoing push and pull between the public and private realms.  Elshtain points to Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther in particular as Christian thinkers who challenged the classical elevation of the public realm that had as its necessary corollary the exclusion of women from political life.

Elshtain writes, “Christianity challenged the primacy of politics. It did not relegate secular power to silence and shadows as secular power had formerly relegated the private, but the claims of the public-political world no longer went unchallenged. Caesar now had to confront the formidable figure of Christ.”  Christianity bequeathed to the individual qua human being irreducible worth and dignity, and placed independent value on “the realm of necessity” inhabited by women. In so doing, it turned Aristotle “on his head.”  The Greeks had excluded women from the highest expressions of human life, action, and thought; Christianity smashed the distinction between higher and lower forms of human existence, with effects that reverberated through to the present.

Not least among these effects is the often politically fraught movement of women into the public sphere.  The existence of Beauty Tips for Ministers and the attention it has garnered are evidence of how the landscape has changed since the first edition of Public Man, Private Woman was published in 1981.  Next week’s conference brings together an interdisciplinary group of major thinkers – including John Witte, Jr., Mary Ann Glendon, David Blankenhorn, Arlene Saxonhouse, William Galston, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, and Don Browning – to debate its title themes; discuss the impact of Jean Elsthain’s contributions; reflect on changes in the social, political, and academic contexts in which we labor; and consider what work is left to do.

More information can be found on the conference web site:

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

Read Courtney Wilder’s Sightings, “The Sacred and the Sartorial,” at

Debra Erickson is a PhD candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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